american civil religion

Image via RNS/Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In the midst of a raging discussion about what it means to be American, it is worthwhile to reflect on the profound ambivalence of American civil religion — perhaps the most powerful force for creating a shared national identity.

In 1967, Robert N. Bellah’s seminal essay, “Civil Religion in America,” created a template for how both the right and the left defined civil religion to cultivate a sense of belonging, particularly in an era of turbulence. During this period of increasing polarization, Bellah’s words are more relevant than ever.

Eboo Patel 6-05-2017
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

IN HIS RECENT book American Covenant, Philip Gorski writes, “To be part of a tradition is to know certain stories, read certain books, admire certain people, and care about certain things. It is to knowingly enter into an ongoing conversation, a conversation that precedes one’s birth and continues on after one’s death.”

The civil religious tradition was first invoked regarding the United States by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967. Bellah spoke of it as the “religious dimension” of the “political realm” and the “founding myth” of our national community. It stands separate from people’s traditional faiths but draws freely from religious language to sacralize national symbols.

When the nation is the object of one's highest concern; when national documents are considered holy scripture; when the nation's founders and historical figures are lifted to the status of demi-god

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